(First posted on Medium)

Peer performance reviews are broken, but if you must have them, read on.

Traditionally, peer reviews are anonymous. Reviewers are asked a bunch of questions and possibly asked to give a grading of a peer or colleague. I’ve never seen this work particularly well anywhere I’ve worked and there arecountless articles decrying their use. There are two fundamental reasons, I believe, that cause them to suck.

  • The purpose is unclear: why am I reviewing this person? How do I know my comments will be taken seriously and in the context I wrote them in?
  • Mistrust: how do I know the process is fair? Are my reviewers spending as much time as me? Do they know me enough to give a balanced review? Will this mean I get less of a pay rise? Is it worth my time?

These lead to two secondary problems:

  • Procrastination: everyone leaves doing their reviews until the last minute, this means they’re rushed, low quality and bland.
  • Closure: what happens to my comments? How do I know they made a difference? I am apathetic about this.

I dislike the anonymity of these kind of reviews chiefly because they do their part in fostering a culture that doesn’t value transparency, they make secrecy seem like it’s a behaviour that’s sanctioned by the company — secrecy shouldn’t be sanctioned — we demand openness, transparency and honesty — anonymity inhibits these behaviours during one of your most crucial activities.


What can we do about it?

Performance, not pay rise

This one is easy(ish).

Dan Pink talks about the three things people need for high performance are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Of the three, purpose is what is important in this context. Give your reviewers a reason to complete a review. The reasons, of course, are up to you — but what is key is that, to get the most of them, they should be unhitched from pay reviews. Peer and performance reviews are about helping the person being reviewed to improve in some way — either professionally (usually this is the case) or personally. Linking them to some kind of increase (or, decrease) in remuneration will kill the value of these reviews faster than video killed the radio star.

Do your peer/performance review cycle at a different cadence to pay reviews
It’s easiest to do them all at once, I know, but staggering them (even by a couple of weeks) will be useful in this context. In Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, he states the Google have their pay review sessions a month after their performance reviews. This is enough time to decouple them in the minds of Google employees. He says that it reinforces the idea that they are separate to have the activities as separate in everyone’s calendar.

Make it obvious what they are for
When you send out whatever missive you choose to kick off a review cycle, make its purpose absolutely explicit and keep repeating this. In The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni, he says that, to get the message of what is important across to an entire company effectively, you need to repeat it and repeat it until and don’t stop, even if you think everyone gets it.

Follow up and close the feedback loop
This one is important and almost universally missed out.

As a conscientious reviewer, you spent time and effort on writing a good, balanced review of your peers, giving examples of behaviour and congratulations on a job well done. You hit the “send” button with a sense of a job well done and then … nothing.

What we’re missing is feedback for the reviewer. The whole process is (rightly) geared around the person being reviewed — we look to change behaviour through decent feedback to the person being reviewed and give them concrete reasons to improve, or continue down a certain path. There’s really no good reason why we can’t follow the same logic for the person doing the reviewing. Otherwise, they will only ever feel like their feedback is dropped into a black hole.

For example, let’s say that Bob was being reviewed, and he was informed that, while his work on the Acme project was excellent, his timekeeping could be improved so as not to keep his colleagues waiting around at the start of meetings. Bob discusses this with his manager and agrees that he’ll make sure he ends meetings five minutes early to be on time to the next one.

After the review process with his manager, Bob will pen a short email that is sent to his reviewers:

Dear Colleagues,

Many thanks for taking the time to give such honest and balanced feedback, I’m glad that my work on the Acme project was appreciated, I worked hard to make it a success.

I’m sorry that my poor-timekeeping is causing a problem for some of you, I wasn’t aware it was having such an impact — I’m in too many meetings! I’ve committed to leaving meetings five minutes earlier to make sure I’m on time — please bear with me while I do some rescheduling, as it may take a week or two to get into the new routine.

Regards,

Bob

Without much more effort, Bob has closed the loop, for both himself as a means to thank his reviewers and apologise (if necessary) and also for his reviewers, they can see their feedback was taken seriously and acted upon.

Next time they’re asked to complete a review for someone, they’ll remember the feedback loop was closed and will try to provide good, constructive feedback that can be acted upon.


Confidential, not anonymous

Making reviews and reviewers public leaves many people quaking in their boots. Complete transparency is not for the faint of heart (but, it’s somewhere you should aspire to) and consequently, not something I would encourage jumping straight into for anyone with an already established process. What I would encourage though, is moving from anonymous to confidential.

The difference is important on many levels. But what does it mean?

Anonymous means that nobody knows the identity of the reviewer, neither the manager or the reviewer. Confidential, on the other hand requires that the reviewer’s name is known, but only to the manager of the person being reviewed. The benefits of a confidential review system outweigh any potential risk that may come with one.

For the reviewer
Removing the comforting blanket of anonymity means that anything written down, must now be carefully considered. If I know that the manager of the person I am reviewing will know what I’ve written, I can’t provide useless waffle, bland platitudes, backbiting or simple bullshit. The fact that my feedback can be sense-checked means my feedback will be more considered and, hopefully, of a higher quality, which will improve the process end-to-end. I also understand that, should my feedback require clarification, I’ll be asked, directly, to provide it. So, I feel some measure of shared responsibility for resolving any issues that I bring it.

For the manager
In the past, I’ve seen feedback that is useless. Sometimes it’s personal feedback (one employee has a personal problem with another), other times, it may not have an example accompanying it, on rare occasions, the feedback may border on gross misconduct, or a sensitive problem that cannot be dealt with in a normal peer performance review process. When the feedback is anonymous, it stops there. There’s not much I can do about it and adding it to the performance review brings little value.

If, as a manager, I were to know the author of the feedback for one of my employees, I could do something about it. I can understand both sides of the issue and, when it’s not anonymous, I can take remedial action that may otherwise be impossible. For example, a personal problem could be fixed by encouraging the parties to discuss it — “Pete is frequently short with me in our Thursday afternoon meetings and it bothers me, have I done something to upset him?” — Pete has a call scheduled with the unreliable service vendor before the Thursday meeting and he is often arguing with them on the phone (and only I know this). I can encourage Pete to reschedule his meeting and then spend some time with the feedback author to explain the situation and ensure them they’ve done nothing to upset them. Of course, I would know both sides and can discuss this potential outcome with the author of the feedback and see if they’re happy to sit with Pete to discuss it — this would expedite the resolution to closure much quicker than me saying “Pete, you’re grumpy in the Thursday meeting and someone thinks you’re upset with them”.

I can find clarity on any feedback that I don’t understand (“Sarah didn’t do a great job on that work for Bobs Books INC” — “What do you mean Sarah? What was the problem?”).

Finally, I can deal with much deeper problems sooner that I could with anonymous feedback. When feedback is anonymous, the remedial action is broad, when it is confidential and I can seek clarity from the author and the remedial action can be precise.

Obviously, any outcome to a more serious problem would be discussed with the author beforehand, to ensure they are comfortable with the process and that confidentiality remains.

For the person being reviewed
If I know that my reviewers are not hiding behind a shroud of anonymity, I know that any feedback will be considered and of a higher quality. I also know that because my manager knows who the feedback is from, I can assume it will be fair and balance and that my manager will do what is required to make it fair and balanced if it isn’t. In short, with it being confidential and not anonymous, I know it will be fair and I know it will be meaningful for me in helping to improve myself.


So…

Most of us don’t have the luxury of running HR or People Ops for the companies we work for and, for the most part, or demands for a better system of performance reviews (or NO performance reviews) will fall on hard-of-hearing ears. However, small changes like these I propose will move us closer to a better, fairer way of reviewing our staff and actually make sure it is a meaningful process that provides value for everyone involved.

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